Venerable Ben Nwanekwu is arguably one of the most articulate voices in the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion. He is the vicar of St Barths Anglican Church, the Achdeacon of Surulere and also the director of Church planting in the diocese of Lagos Mainland. The archdeaconry is the largest in the diocese. Nwanekwu who had been in the church for the past 12 years as a venerable and who was also the chaplain of the late primate for 10 years brings his sense of history to bear in this interview with Church Times. He recalls with uncanny interest some memorable times with the late primate of the Anglican Communion
My first contact with Adetiloye
My first meeting with him was in 1986 at my confirmation. I had been prepared for confirmation at Christ Church Ebute Meta by Rev Ogboh the canon in charge was the late venerable Folorunso who retired in Diocese of Lagos West and the archdeacon then was JTL Idowu.
Then the Anglican Church had just come out of a court case and a lot of churches were lumped together for the confirmation service at Christ Church Ebute Meta. They used to call them Christ Church group of churches namely igbo churches. We had about 700 candidates to be confirmed then. When it was my turn to be confirmed he laid hands on me and it took him time before he could remove his hands and when he finished he whispered to my ear that he wanted to see me after the service that I was a material for the ministry.
After the service he waited behind for the reception which was quite unusual and he requested that I should come and stay by his side. I couldn’t believe it. He asked my vicar to prepare me for priesthood. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a priest because I was a rascal boy.
Another dramatic encounter
One day one of my friends, Clement Ojegba who now lives in the UK took me along Marina, Lagos in his car. As we were driving along CMS where the Bishop’s palace is, the vehicle broke down. It was a fairly brand new car. It had no reason to break down. But it did. So we came down and tried to see what was wrong. While I was there somebody beckoned on me and said somebody was calling me from upstairs. I was wondering who knew me in that place and I looked up and saw a man in purple. It was baba and he said young man come here. I was shocked because the first and the only time we met was at the confirmation service. He called and said my son you must be trained. You are a priest. That was what made me to begin to think along that line. But deep in my heart I was still struggling with the call.
My interview and how I got involved
We were 48 at the interview and my number was 47. I was not too keen about the interview because I saw people who had Phd and people who had Masters degree and here was I just had A’ levels. So I tried to escape from the place. As I was about leaving I walked into the hands of Rufus Akinwale who was the Synod Secretary. He said nobody should leave the venue of the interview. I didn’t listen to him I just walked out. Just at the door again I met Sope Johnson the then provost outside, he was so handsome with white hair and glowing cassock. He asked where I was going, I lied and told him I was going to make photocopy. He said he would do the photocopy for me and he went inside and did it for me. That was how I came back to do the interview. In the course of the interview baba Adetiloye was going and coming. But as soon as it was my turn he came inside.
I accused Adetiloye
At the interview they were asking me what would be my contribution to the church if I were to become a priest and I told them that day that I would like to be a social emancipator. In 1986 I had already made some impression on the media. If you remember when Dele Giwa died there was the story of a young boy who went to sign the condolence register and wrote in red. It was published. I was the young boy. I had just finished school and wanted to be a communicator, My father wanted me to be a lawyer but I didn’t like the idea. I wrote the piece open letter to my uncle, Tunde Idiagbon then and commented on a number of issues of public interest.
At the interview I remember accusing baba Adetiloye, I said to him that I was not happy with him that I read in the papers and saw him doing confirmation service at Maroko that he had taken away the money they contributed and yet this people were living in slum. He laughed. The late venerable J I Ogunmilade shut me down but baba said he wanted people like me. He was so proud of me and he said they want radicals in the church that would question and challenge the church and he insisted I must be trained.
My seminary and priesthood
Baba Adetiloye sent me to Emmanuel College and he came and took me to a pure Anglican Seminary which was then being run by the British. That was Vining College in Akure. After my training I was ordained. And he requested for me in Lagos. I was ordained in Ikorodu. I was the only candidate that was Igbo. My parents were not happy I was going to be a priest.
At the rehearsal for the ordination I was put aside because I was not Yoruba but baba Adetiloye was not tribal. He was always looking for the best material He would say things about us are treated last. When he sees a Yoruba man and an Igbo man he would help the Igbo man first and when you ask him why he would say things about us are treated last. That is why he did not do much for his own family. He did more for people outside. There was nobody that could have kept the church intact as at that time if not for the wisdom of baba because there were agitations here and there.
So at the ordination rehearsal, there were efforts to pick the person that would read the gospel among those to be ordained. The way it was done was that he asked us to go to the western door and he was at the altar and whoever had the best voice and intonation and delivery would read the gospel. By the time they tried about 26 people one of the priests said to them, this boy you are putting aside speaks more Yoruba than Yoruba people and that was how I was invited to come and try.
The problem they had was that people from different dialects were not getting the proper pronouciation of kankun a Yoruba word because the service was going to be conducted in Yoruba. So all of them missed it. But when I was asked to come and pronounce the word I got the pronouciation correctly and that was how I emerged the gospeller (person to read the gospel). People clapped and that was how I got the nick name, Omono soro and that was where Adetiloye appointed me his chaplain.
My experience as his chaplain
He had diocesan Chaplain, provincial chaplain but he needed a domestic chaplain. A domestic chaplain was the one that enters his room like a son. Venerable Adewunmi was the diocesan chaplain every service in the diocese was in his purview. Things were well organised and offices were spelt out. We had only one province. As domestic chaplain I also did the work of provincial chaplain because of his travels. So I knew him in and out. I know about 48 mannerisms of Adetiloye
If baba runs through his hair with bare hand it was a sign that he was tired of where he was and was ready to go. Bishops don’t talk. Some chaplains don’t understand their bishops and it makes me annoyed. When Baba stamps his feet on the ground I knew what he meant,
When we are driving on the road and the driver is over-speeding he would tell the driver, Akin, ma sa re ju o? bo ba sele mi oni ku o? iwo ni anu e se mi o! meaning Akin, don’t over-speed. If there is an accident I can assure you that nothing will happen to me. I’m only sympathetic with you.”
But if he had a confirmation service in Lagos and he was in Akure and would not like to get to the service late the same man who cautioned you not to run would tactically sayoko loko Peugeot meaning Peugeot cars are strong cars. What he was indirectly saying is for you increase your speed. When he said words like mo beru agba meaning I fear elders he was indirectly saying there is a conspiracy going on. He had several pity sayings and mannerism that only people who were close to him understood.
If you saw where Olu, his nephew who lived with him for so many years was talking to baba Adetiloye you would wonder. When he is sick he would rather prefer to pray than to take medicine. Once he says Igbagbo bila he was giving a signal that all was not well with his health. He did not believe in traveling by air within Nigeria. Most of his travels were done by road so he could see Anglican Churches that were having challenges so that he could make some contribution. He travelled the length and breath of this country. There is no city in this country that he did not sleep.
He turned down special Holy Communion request for Prince Charles
There was a time we were with one military administrator and the administrator asked him to send me away. Rather than send me away he told the administrator to send his orderly away too because what the orderly was doing was what his chaplain was doing. So the man had no option but to allow me stay with them while they discussed.
When Prince Charles came to Nigeria and they brought their letter that the Queen said baba Adetiloye should conduct a special Holy Communion service in the boat for Prince Charles. Baba said haha this insult is too much and he said if the son of the Oni of Ife goes to London would the Ooni have sent a message that the Bishop of Canterbury should conduct a special Holy Communion service for him in the boat? He turned down the request and rather said I should go and give Prince Charles the communion.
I was having contact with Prince Charles, Desmond tutu and a number of people that baba interacted regularly with because of my position and the free hand he gave me. But I did not misuse the privilege
How he taught me to read the Bible
You do not go him without a paper. The way he taught me to read the Bible was unique. It was when I went to do practical theology as a course in England that I understood clearly what he was trying to pass across. If you are reading the Bible, he wants you to put voice to the word.
After he had read a passage and he wants to meditate more on the passage he would call me and ask me to read to his hearing. I would read the passage for about two times and he would ask me to read for the third time. When I’m reading he would just put off the light and when I react he would say preparation preparation. The implication of that is that he expected me to committed the scripture to heart after the first and the second reading.
He escaped plane crash
He loved me. Everybody knew that the most beloved of the priests during Adetiloye;s time was Benjamin. He called me the son of my right hand. He called me, Omo na soro. And people felt that he spoilt me. He exposed me to so many good things in life, The boldness I have today came from Adetiloye. He would want to go for a very important service he would prepare and ask me to go with him. When he gets there he would ask me to go and preach and when I questioned him he would say preparation, preparation preparation.
He is the most spiritual church patriach I have ever found. We were to be involved in the crash that took the life of some prominent Nigerians some years ago. I can’t remember the year. The ticket was bought and they bought for him and his wife but I was the one that took that of his wife because by then his wife had this protracted sickness so she was not traveling with him. We were at the airport already but he changed his mind and said we were not going to travel by air. And when the crash happened it became clear that he truly heard from God. And he knew also that the government of the day was looking for him. He made comments that exposed him to danger. When he said if Babangida did not step down as the then president he would die like the Egyptian Pharaoh that was when he began to get several threats and his life became endangered.
His biggest burden
Unity of the church was a major challenge for him. He was concerned about the intellectual growth of the church. He started TAP meaning Train a Priest. Before we used to have rural uneducated priests but he sent everybody to school by encouraging them. He kept them in the parishes even when they were in school. You could express your self while staying with him. If he accepted you as a son he did not expect you to talk officially.
His impression about the government
He saw the government of the day as different from the government of God. He believes the government of the church must influence and change the government of the day. He was always attacking the government of the day when they did things that were anti-people. Those in authority enjoyed his company but he did not cheapen himself before them. This man was revered. Every state house had a place for the primate of the Church of Nigeria because they felt it was a privilege to always host him.
What annoyed him
Lies made him angry. If you killed and you told him you killed he would not take offense. He didn’t like lies. That is why people felt he covered a lot of people. There was the case of a church that was protesting that they didn’t want Yoruba people and I told them that the church should not be divided and because of that I locked the church. When I told him what I did he told me I should have thrown the key to the lagoon. The following Sunday he went to address the church.
The church went to court and I was in court and conducted the Holy Communion in the court room. I knew it was contempt of the court. The judge said they should send me to jail and he asked if I was aware of what I did. I said I was and that I had prepared to go to jail because I had my toothpaste already in my bag. He changed his mind having realized I was fighting for unity of the church. The judge later asked the people to obey me. I went to baba and I told him and he was proud of what I did. He abhorred lies and he did not like division.
Impact he made
He was able to penetrate the hither land. The primate before him Timothy Olufosoye and the one after him did a lot. We must appreciate them too. I remember I had paper cuttings where Olufosoye stood against syncretism in the church because at that time a lot of people were distracted in the church. He was able to define the Anglican Church properly so when Adetitloye came he took off from there, I remember when we went to Lokoja before Lokoja Diocese was founded he went looking for where the royal jack was placed by Lord Lugard. The man in charge of the CSS bookshop that took us to the area and he went there and prayed and said Lord, “This was where they decided that Christianity should not get to the North and he prayed that whatever had been done that he as the primate of Nigeria had come to annul it. That same year was when Reihand Bonnke came to Nigeria and held crusades in the north. They massacred Christians and he said the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the gospel. Bishop Chukwuma played a big role in expanding the church in the North Chukwuma is a fighter for the faith and a great asset to the Church of Nigeria. Adetiloye was able to identify his strength and he used him appropriately.
He was called primate by fellow church leaders
He traveled hand in hand with Okogie, Idahosa and Mbang. Because of his experience and wealth of knowledge they saw him as a leader of leaders. They called him primate.
He believed in Nigeria and believed in young people. He could not understand the looting and stealing in the church. He was a man called by God who rose without a father with only a mother behind him. He was generous and non tribal. He was ready to give up everything he had. He was God fearing and respected friendship. He never loved money. He doesn’t hang around on xmas time expecting gifts from parishioners, he would have gone to his village.
His last prayer for me
He asked me to write a book on him. He called two of us, Olu and I and we went to see him in Odo Owa in Ekiti State where he lived before he died. He prayed for us and prayed for me in particular. I told him we were coming back to Lagos that same day. He insisted we must have launch with him He asked them to put our food together in one plate. He put us by his two sides and prayed for us. And he prayed specific prayers. I won’t reveal the content of the prayer but the prayer was such that anytime he missed a line he would go back and repeat it. He touched on very crucial areas of my life and we sat down to eat and he was now asking if I could remember some of the things that happened in the course of his ministry and I said I remember the day he ate poison and a number of other things which I brought to his remembrance and he asked me to begin a book project. He actually asked me to write his memoirs and bring it so he could approve. Unfortunately he died three weeks after. He was a father indeed.